Understanding the Gospel of Christ; Chapter 2 – The Birth and Childhood of Jesus Christ; Part 1 – The circumstances and events before the birth of the Messiah.

Disclaimer: Although this study is based upon the Bible, I draw my inspiration from multiple translations of the Holy Scriptures and ask you to please read along from your preferred translation. To help you to understand the material, I will include paraphrased verses. However, I will never omit what God has inspired into the Holy Scriptures, nor will I add to the scriptures any of my ideas and conjectures. You may share your answers in the comment section below. I provide this bible study for the benefit of my readers and you may share this with members of your study group. Any support you feel led to contribute – prayer, sharing, commenting, or minor donation – will be greatly appreciated. Thank you and enjoy.

 

Part 1 – The circumstances and events before the birth of the Messiah.

 

Roughly four hundred years passed between the completion of the prophet Malachi’s era and the first accounting of John the Baptist, forerunner to the Messiah. The period is regarded by some biblical scholars of Christian faith as the “400 Silent Years”. Yahweh did not reveal anything new to His people through prophets called to share His messages of guidance and righteous living.

During this era, Jewish people willingly left their homeland for distant parts of the known civilized world. There were Jewish communities established in various parts of the Roman empire, including Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Rome. When Jerusalem was captured in 63 BC, Rome assumed control of the Hasmonean kingdom and Jews intensified their emigration efforts. The area eventually became the Roman province of Judea in 6 AD.

During this same period, Israel began to experience a shift from a conquered people to a modern, integrated society in the affluent centers of Western civilization of that era. This began the influence of Hellenistic ideals on Jewish culture. These societal changes had their beginnings in Alexandria (Egypt) and Antioch (Syria) but spread with ease throughout the region as the Jewish people emigrated from their homeland abroad. This, in turn, helped the Hellenists establish a friendly, financial relationship with leaders of the Jewish community as well as the ruling Judean hierarchy. Not only did this allow the Jewish people to exert a measure of influence in that era, but it also paved the way for Gentiles to integrate into the Israeli homeland as well.

There was disagreement among the ultra-conservative Jews who resisted the Hellenistic movement of their progressive brethren. During the “400 Silent Years”, the work “2 Maccabees” strove to discredit Hellenism; ascribing the threat as an attempt to assimilate Jewish culture, disposing of tradition. This could be a precursor to the resistance to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah during His ministry. He would, after all, present the message of salvation to both Jew and Gentile.

Judea benefited from the rule of Ptolemy 1 Soter in Egypt, a friend to Alexander the Great, whose kingdom was established in 305 BC, the capital of which became Alexandria. The Ptolemaic dynasty lasted until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC after Rome conquered Egypt. Around 187 BC, Seleucus IV Philapator, the son of Antiochus III the Great, established his rule of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire in the area consisting of parts of Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Iran, and Syria. In 164 BC, his successor was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a man who inexplicably reversed his grandfather’s decrees that had protected Jewish religious rites and traditions in Judea. This sparked a revolt which led to the formation of the Hasmonean Dynasty, an independent Jewish nation.

While several external forces were at work on the Jewish people, there were internal influencers as well. The Maccabean Revolt was a Jewish rebellion, lasting from 167 to 160 BCE, led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenistic influence on Jewish life. The recapture of Jerusalem in 164 BCE from the armies Antiochus IV was a significant early victory for Judah. Simon Thassi expelled the Syrian Greeks from Judea in 140 BC and established the Second Jewish Commonwealth under the Hasmonean dynasty. The subsequent cleansing of the Temple and rededication of the Altar on the 25th of Kislev established the annual Hanukkah festival.

The Hasmonean Dynasty lasted just over one hundred years, fracturing internally into civil war around 63 BC. Degradation of the dynasty began when the High Priest Hyrcanus II, a supporter of the Pharisees, was overthrown by his younger brother, Aristobulus II, a supporter of the Sadducees. The Pharisees were members of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity. Sadducees, comparatively, were a relatively new group of Jewish ruling class of priests rejecting doctrines, not in the Law, including resurrection and angels. The Sadducees came to existence during the “400 Silent Years”’ but interestingly, they disappeared from Jewish culture after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

The civil war involved a third party from Idumea, led by Antipater and his son Herod, overthrew the Hasmonean dynasty and re-authorized Hyrcanus to rule over the Judean territory. Then in 42 BC Antigonus, son of Aristobulus II and a nephew of Hyrcanus II, defeated Herod. The Hasmonean dynasty survived for scarcely three more years when Herod returned, with the aid of Rome, re-took what he had lost and had Antigonus executed. Herod ruled over Judea, under the eye of Rome, until he died in 4 BC.

When Herod died, his kingdom was divided between his two sons, Herod Archelaus and Philip the Tetrarch, whose kingdom lasted only ten years. There were two other Herods that would come to play later in the saga of the Jewish people as well – Herod Antipas and Herod II. Herod Archelaus ruled Samaria, Judea, and Idumea, a region claimed by the Roman Emperor Augustus. By 6 AD., most of the tetrarchies were assimilated into the Roman Empire. While most of the kingdoms were allowed to keep their rulers in place, those rulers were mere puppets of the Roman emperor, owing loyalty and control of their wealth to Rome. One can understand why there was so much resentment to the empire among the Israelites of Christ’s time. The de facto Herodian kingdom lasted until the death of Agrippa I in 44 AD, with the end of the nominal Herodian rule of the Jewish people lasting until the death of Agrippa II in Rome in 92 AD.

The establishment of synagogues

The synagogues were established during this era as well. The establishment of the first synagogues began around the fifth century BC when religious leaders saw a need to formalize and standardize the language of Jewish prayer. Up until then, the Jewish prayed as they perceived the need and in their way. The synagogues were not intended to replace the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem, even though it had been destroyed for some time. The synagogues were consecrated spaces used for prayer, reading of the Holy Scriptures, study, and assembly. However, a synagogue is unnecessary for Jewish worship.

 

Change in common language from Hebrew to Greek and Aramaic

The Greek Septuagint was the first translation of the Hebrew scriptures into another language. The Greek Old Testament, or Septuagint, is the earliest extant Koine Greek translation of books from the Hebrew Bible, various biblical Apocrypha, and deuterocanonical books. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Torah or Pentateuch, were translated in the mid-third century BC. The remaining books of the Greek Old Testament are presumably translations from the second century BC. Traditionally, six scholars from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel produced identical translations. Greek translations of Hebrew scriptures were in circulation among the Alexandrian Jews. Greek scriptures were in wide use by the time of Jesus and Paul of Tarsus because most Christian proselytes, God-fearers, and other gentile sympathizers of Hellenistic Judaism could not read Hebrew.

 

The New Testament

 

Why do you think there were four different accountings of the Gospel of Christ?

When the testimony is given in court, why is it so important to have more than one witness for defense or prosecution?

What exactly is a testimony?

From your experiences with Yahweh and the Messiah, could you give an accounting of the Messiah?

 

Let us look at four different men who were so affected by their encounters with Christ that they wrote down their testimony for the benefit of generations of believers beyond their time. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had their own experience with God through the Holy Spirit, indwelling their lives through their belief and faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. Their words, inspired by Yahweh, validate the Old Testament Messianic prophecies as well as the hope that a person can reconcile oneself to Him, should they so choose to accept the Gospel truth.

Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, come from all walks of life – many paths that come from distant locations but converge on Christ, the only true way to eternal life in the Kingdom of God. A tax collector wrote the four Gospels turned teacher, an evangelistic missionary, a Gentile physician and historian, and an astute disciplined follower turned theologian. Two of the Gospels were firsthand, personal, and physical encounters with the Messiah from His disciples. The other two Gospels writers encountered their personal relationship with Christ through the testimony of others and believing. They never witnessed the Resurrection or the Ascension, but through faith, enjoyed the blessings of the Holy Spirit and shared that faith for the benefit of the entire world. Paul also experienced a physical and personal encounter with Jesus Christ and later gave his testimony. His encounter, however, while just as important, affected the lives of later Christians who did not witness the Messiah themselves. We will study Paul and his teachings in the next Bible study.

Matthew is the first Gospel in the New Testament. The tax collector turned apostle authored it  around 65 AD. He presents the earthly life of Jesus Christ from His birth to the Ascension into Heaven. Matthew wrote it for the benefit of the Jewish people to present Jesus as the King of Israel and the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He emphasized the Messiah’s sermons as well as the Kingdom of Heaven. His book ties the Old Testament and New Testament together into a complete journey of the Christian faith.

Written around 60 AD., Mark produced the second accounting of the Gospel of Christ. He started his record with the Baptism of Jesus Christ and culminated with the Ascension. Mark was an evangelistic missionary who intended his message for the Roman people. He presented Jesus as a humble servant. Having the most Aramaic influence in his language and prose, Mark’s testimony was a Gospel of deeds, focusing more on what the Messiah accomplished than what He said. He regularly described the emotional side of our Lord. Peter had a profound influence on Mark’s ideology.

Luke was a highly educated Greek physician and historian. The third Gospel is a thoroughly researched, fact-based account presented to the Greeks as a detailed report of whom the man Jesus Christ was. He begins with the accounting of the forerunner to the Messiah, John the Baptist, and continues through the life and ministry of the Lord until His ascension into Heaven. Luke described the Lord as a perfect human being. The emphasis of his testimony focused on the parables and prayer life of the Messiah. He traveled with Paul and detailed the events of the early church and Christian movement in the Book of Acts. He wrote both accounts from Rome in 59 and 60 AD., respectively.

John was a follower of John the Baptist and later one of the twelve apostles. The beloved friend of Jesus. He later became a theologian and wrote his first important work, the fourth Gospel, from Ephesus in 90 AD. The Gospel of John starts by announcing the idea of the Holy Trinity – that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Three and One – and that the Messiah had been part of Yahweh’s plan for all humanity from the very beginning of Creation. In fact, John presents Jesus as the almighty God with a strong emphasis on the doctrine He taught. After the introduction, the rest of his work covered the ministry of John the Baptist and finished with the reappearance of Jesus to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee. John’s account was established for all humanity to know, then as well as now, that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God.

These four different accounts of the Messiah did not happen by chance. The fact that two eyewitnesses wrote them and two well-educated men gives credence to the Gospels as truth. God promised to Abraham that all nations and humanity would be blessed through him, a promise fulfilled through the Messiah, Jesus Christ. When God created humanity, He said “Let us create…”. Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit – Three in One – were together in the beginning and are still together today. Men wrote the Word inspired by God for the benefit of all humanity. It behooves you to take its accounting to your heart; to believe it, trust it, consume it, and live it.

The remainder of this study of the Gospels will attempt to follow the accounting of the Messiah in chronological order of events. The scriptural references will be included, but you should be forewarned most included in this volume of work have been paraphrased, especially the combined accounting of events that appear in two or more of the Gospels. Since this is a study intending to get you to an understanding of the life and work of the Messiah, the traditional order would have proven more difficult for this writer; inspired by the Holy Spirit to nurture and share his understanding of Jesus Christ with the world.

 

Luke described his purpose for writing the Gospel of Luke.

Luke 1:1-4

To the most honorable Theophilus, one who loves God:

Many people have undertaken thorough written accounts about the events fulfilled and most surely believed among us. For their material, they use the sources from the reports circulating among us from the beginning from the early disciples, ministers of the Word, and eyewitnesses of what God has done in fulfillment of His promises. I carefully investigated all these accounts from the beginning and have decided to write a careful summary for you, to reassure you of the faith of all you were taught.

In a manner similar to Hellenistic Greek histories and Graeco-Roman literature, Luke began his Gospel with a prologue that identified his audience and explained his reason for writing it. He acknowledged that other writers accounted for or investigated the Man and circumstances of Jesus Christ. His account included many eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus. Luke intended his Gospel to compliment what had already been written by other authors of the era about Jesus. He wanted to reassure a fellow Christian’s faith in what he had been taught about Jesus Christ fulfilled Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah.

 

Do you know what purpose God had for John the Baptist in His plan to offer redemption to humanity?

Why do you think Luke, a noted physician, and historian, would include the events of John the Baptist’s birth within his Gospel account of the birth of Jesus?

 

Gabriel predicts John the Baptist’s birth

The following events may have occurred around 7-6 BC., during the reign of King Herod the Great. The priestly division, Abijah, consisted of hundreds of men who were on duty for one week two times a year. Only once in a lifetime can a priest be fortunate enough to burn incense on the altar before the holy of holies, which was left to casting lots to determine who could receive that special honor. Though the lot fell to Zechariah, it was not by chance that he had been presented the opportunity to go into one of the most sacred portions of the Temple. You can sense the man’s heartbeat jumping all over the place with nervous joy as he commenced with his duties. He had no idea of what was about to happen next.

Luke 1:5-25

It all began with the Jewish priest named Zechariah. He lived when Herod was king of Judea. Zechariah was a member of the priestly order of Abijah. His wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zachariah and Elizabeth both lived their lives righteously in the eyes of God. They were careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children of their own because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both very old.

One day Zechariah was serving God as a priest in the Temple because his division was on duty that week. According to the custom of the priests, he was chosen by the lot to enter the Temple of the Lord and burn incense in the Lord’s presence. A considerable crowd stood outside and prayed while the incense was being burned.

 

Would you be afraid if an angel suddenly appeared in front of you?

What was your gut reaction the first time you realized God answered a prayer of your heart positively?

How did you respond to that answered prayer?

 

While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared, standing to the right of the incense altar. The appearance of the angel overwhelmed Zechariah with fear.

The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid Zechariah! For I have come to tell you that God has heard your prayer, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son! You are to name him John. You will have immense joy and gladness, and many will rejoice with you at his birth. He will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong alcohol.

“Even before his day of birth, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will persuade many Israelites to turn their hearts back towards God. He will be a man with the same spirit and power as Elijah, the prophet from old. He will precede the coming of the Lord, preparing the people for His arrival. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will change disobedient minds to accept Godly wisdom.”

“How can I know this will happen?” Zechariah asked the angel. “I am an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God. He sent me to bring you this good news! Behold! Since you did not believe what I told you, you will not speak until the child is born. My words will certainly come true at the proper time.”

The people who were waiting outside of the Temple for Zechariah to come out were beginning to wonder why he was taking so long. When he finally emerged from the Temple, he could not speak to them. When he could only gesture to them, they realized he must have seen a vision in the Temple sanctuary. He remained at the Temple until his term of service was over before he returned home.

Not long after that, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and went into seclusion for 5 months. “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children!”

 

Zechariah reacted to the angel as many of the other characters with similar encounters had. Gabriel’s announcement? Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to be parents, even at their advanced age. The prayers of their heart would finally be answered by Yahweh. Even the most righteous human is not without fault. Zechariah was no different. Well advanced in years, he found it hard to fathom that he would father a child at last. Consequently, he lost the ability to speak until the birth of his son. His wife Elizabeth, however, welcomed the news as a blessing and praised God for His kindness toward her.

Gabriel’s prophecy of John’s accomplishments spoke of the importance of preparing oneself to respond to Yahweh’s calling. John the Baptist was only the forerunner to the Messiah. His message of repenting of their sins and returning of their hearts to God established the journey to salvation. Without a desire to turn away from sin and focus our heart on desiring a reconnection with our Heavenly Father, one would be unable to receive and believe in the mission and message of Christ.

 

Leave a Reply